Experiences of the Spanish Flu at SU (1918)

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By Nico Guarin

The Spanish influenza spread throughout the United States from 1918-1920. It was able to claim more than 675,00 American lives. While technology today allows for the fast and almost instantaneous spread of knowledge, means of communication in the early twentieth century were much less expeditious. The radio and newspaper were the two main forms of media that were available to the public. These two medias were responsible for communication knowledge from the scientists to the public. Through them, the public was able to stay continuously informed on the happenings of the country. Important information, such as updates on the rapidly spreading pandemic, were able to make people in many places aware of the threat at hand. This essay aims to understand how and why, during one of the deadliest pandemics, life at Southwestern University seemed to continue as normal.

In the United States, as World War 1 was ending, it was the beginning of a new period of time in the country. The Spanish influenza was quickly spreading worldwide and by the end the pandemic, claimed more than 675,000 deaths in the United States alone. The spanish flu has been recognized to have taken place in three waves, with the first starting around spring or summer of 1918. It took a heavy toll on the young adult population as it killed roughly one in four of its victims. This was a considerably higher mortality rate, as compared to other epidemics which killed about one in every thousand.[1] The Spanish flu spread with great speed across the country, largely in cities with military bases. While it is hard to pinpoint where the pandemic began, it can be said to have originated in Kansas in January of 1918. It became impossible to stop the spread once it began, as interconnected transportation networks allowed the virus to find itself all over the world.

To understand how this epidemic spread with such strength and speed, it is important to look at those who spread it: the general public. How much did the public know about the Spanish Flu? How much did the public know about germs and viruses in general? It is necessary to look to the history of germ theory in order to find out the information the public had at the time. Before germ theory, nobody thought that a living organism from the outside could cause a disease. Doctors had been explaining illnesses by linking them to internal changes in the humours. Overindulgence in food and drink, or bad habits have also been seen as causes of illnesses before the concept of falling ill from other organisms.[2] The introduction of germ theory was a big turning point in medicine as it brought with it the concept of warfare within the body. The realization that the body has to defend against small living creatures, was one spurred interest in how these microorganisms play a role in everyday things. While looking into the role of microorganisms in events such as baking bread or brewing beer, Louis Pasteur made many discoveries in dairy products that are still used today. Showing that bacteria and other microorganisms caused diseases in not only humans, but also in animals was important as it helped show that these organisms caused disease.

Diseases were explained by doctors as contagious. This meant that the disease could be spread by contact between people.

Cholera, the most feared disease of the 1800s, was a disease that doctors had trouble explaining. A major fear shared by many people, was that Cholera was spreading through the air. In order to figure out how it was spreading, English physician, John Snow, mapped out London neighborhoods. By doing this, he became sure that Cholera was being spread by water. He concluded that the feces and vomit of Cholera victims was contaminating the water, which was then pumped into the city from a public pump in Soho, central London.[3] What Snow’s research did was raise awareness for the need for clean water for public health. By raising awareness, the public began to understand how they were spreading the disease. They were informed by the discoveries made by scientists like Snow, and were able to learn the importance of having clean water to avoid the rampant spread of disease.

The creation of the vaccine is another example of communication between scientists and the public improving. Louis Pasteure aimed to make the Anthrax bacterium weaker, to be able to inject it into patients as a vaccine. Anthrax was a disease that was sometimes spread from farm animals to humans, and caused sores of the skin. If it is spread to the bloodstream, anthrax can kill. As Pasteure found out where the bacterium thrived and where it was vulnerable, he was able to create an anthrax bacteria that was much weaker and less able to cause disease. This made Anthrax the first human disease preventable by vaccine.[4] Once Pasteur made his discovery, he invited newspaper reporters to his house soon after his creation. In front of live reporters, Pasteur was able to show how the non vaccinated animals died, while the vaccinated animals were unaffected. This helped make the public aware of the powerful steps medical science was making.[5]

The process of disseminating knowledge created by scientists to the public has been proven throughout the history of disease and germs to be an important process. As scientists discovered microorganisms in the air and all around us, they better understood how to prevent the spread of disease. Cholera placed a big emphasis on sanitation, while innovations like Louis Pasteure’s vaccine for Anthrax let the public know of science’s leaps forward. Though the communication between scientists and the public in instances like these were strong, other attempts of communication are not so successful.

There was a fear of the flu nearly everywhere in the United States, but in some areas, the flu did not cause panic or fear. With daily reports of the influenza spreading in other countries or even the rampant spread in the US, some areas did not see the Spanish flu as an imminent threat. The reason for this seemingly irrational behavior in these places was cognitive inertia.[6] This is the tendency of existing beliefs or habits of thought to blind people to change realities. Cognitive inertia was fueled by the understanding of the flu as only a seasonal visitor rather than a viral threat. It was also believed to only seldom kill the strong and healthy, which was horribly untrue. As the public began to rely more on sources such as newspapers to stay informed, news of the troops overseas and updates on the war overshadowed the pandemic in some areas.

Although these areas affected by cognitive inertia were informed on what was happening in other parts of the world, they chose to ignore what scientists were saying, and instead stuck with their own beliefs. The communication between the scientist and public was further weakened by the newspapers, who focused their attention on the war overseas, rather than the viral war they were facing at home.

According to the deficit model of science communication, information moves from experts to the public. This is called popularization. This creation and diffusion of information for the general public to create new knowledge is what bridges the gap between the experts and the public.[7]7 In order for the popularization of science to occur, this relies on mediums of information exchange such as books and museums, in order for the people to become educated. While these fountains of information were readily available to observe, the newspaper and radio were essential to relay messages in a fast manner. The relationship between the experts and the public becomes increasingly important in times of uncertainty and fear, such as a pandemic. Expert sources such as the Surgeon General can be seen giving advice in The Williamson County Sun, in articles titled “How to fight Spanish Influenza”. Here, they make the public aware of different ways to stop the spread of the virus such as washing one's hands or avoiding crowds.[8]  While this is a step in the right direction, there seems to be a lack of a sense of urgency in making the public aware of the gravity of the situation. This was made apparent after looking through The Williamson County Sun and its issues from 1918 to 1920. While the pandemic was sweeping the nation, students and faculty alike at Southwestern seem to have been under informed. The Surgeon General allowed readers to understand how to combat the virus more effectively, but the lack of more articles like these seems strange due to the severity of the pandemic.

The lack of information in the SU community about the Spanish Influenza was not due to the experts, as the communication of knowledge is dependent on the newspaper and journalists, which report to the public. Experts and the media are heavily reliant on each other to disseminate knowledge to the public. While the experts lead the communication process by producing knowledge, they rely on the media to spread it.

Without experts, the media would not be able to spread any information that the public may need. The public has its own role in this process, as they agree to scientific judgements, and pledge their support for activities that scientists have deemed desirable or essential.[9]

In terms of participation, the public can only react and interpret the knowledge they receive. The public can express how they feel, as journalists record and translate that expression into a newspaper article. An example of this is in The Megaphone, where an article titled “Lawrence Called Home By Death Of His Father”, describes a student whose father had died of complications resulting from the Spanish influenza.[10] While there was communication between the public and experts, it was not sufficient on Southwestern’s campus, as there was not enough public awareness of the virus. This may have caused the public to be unprepared for the virus that came to take a heavy toll on the SU community.

As medical advancements in the world improved the quality of life, there were some things that even medical advancements cannot control. The spread of the Spanish influenza through the United states from 1918-1920 was one that ravaged the American people. Despite this, the SU community seemed nearly unfazed, and displayed no signs of panic. One cause to blame for this reaction may have been cognitive inertia. Cognitive inertia may have been one of the causes, but this stems from an uninformed public. In order to keep the general public informed, experts must communicate through the media, which provides outlets for audiences to observe. While the Spanish Influenza’s effect was felt at SU, the community may have prepared better, if media outlets such as The Megaphone and The Williamson County Sun had made the public more aware about the pandemic at hand.

[1] Tom Dicke, “Waiting for the flu: Cognitive Inertia and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 70, no. 2 (April 2015):201, accessed February 15, 2020, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/579501.

[2] William Bynum, A Little History of Science (Yale University Press, 2012), 161.

 [3] Bynum, A Little History, 163.

[4] Bynum, A Little History, 164.

[5] Bynum, A Little History, 165.

 [6] Dicke, “Waiting for the flu: Cognitive Inertia and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19,” 197.

[7] Bruce V. Lewenstein, Popularization, 667

[8] “How To Fight Spanish Influenza,” Williamson County Sun, October 18, 1918

 [9] Steven Shapin, “Science and the Public,” in Companion to the History of Modern Science, ed. R.C. Olby, G.N. Cantor, J.R.R. Christie, M.J.S. Hodge (London: Princeton University Press ,1974), 992.

[10] Waldrop, Gayle, “Lawrence Called Home By Death Of His Father,” The Megaphone, November 5, 1918, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth394998/m1/3/